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by Lauren Mehler | March 10, 2009

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After a semester of conducting information interviews with working professionals, I've learned that finding a career is like clothes shopping: You may not like everything about a particular career, but you should try it on anyway to see if it fits.

I decided to do these interviews because my uncertainty about my career path was keeping me from moving forward with job hunting. I wanted to know how established professionals chose their careers and got to where they are today.

Initially, I thought this project would lead me to a perfect career. That didn't happen, but at least I've eliminated a huge obstacle: fear of the job world and the choices that come with it.

Becoming Less Fearful

One reason I'm less afraid is that, just as my career counselor predicted, I discovered I'm not alone in my confusion. Most of the people I spoke with started out just like me. Typically, they liked parts, but not everything, about their major or a particular career field. As the years passed, they often changed jobs or entire fields. Now most are quite successful.

My neighbor Ron, for instance, knew he liked to build things, while Karen, an executive at the company where I interned, liked statistics. However, they initially had difficulty translating those interests into a job. Ron started out working in state government and now oversees environmental concerns for a large perfume company, while Karen does corporate marketing after starting at a nonprofit. Other professionals had similar zig-zag paths. So even though I may not like everything about a certain career path, I shouldn't let my lack of certainty keep me from going forward.

This is why I liken my career search to clothes shopping. I'm looking around and from talking with others, I'm starting to know what I want. What looks good at first glance may not fit, and what I think is all wrong for me may be what fits best. The only way I'll know is to remain open, ask questions, and try it on for size.

A Roller-Coaster Ride

Every person I interviewed had ups and downs in their careers. The common themes and anecdotal events they described not only educated me, but also gave me the confidence and understanding I need to endure the sometimes abusive process of finding a first job. If you have ever attended a career fair and felt like a piece of meat, you know what I'm talking about.

The professionals I met gave me other career advice, including telling me to:

Let my interests guide me. My neighbor Jennifer, a freelance medical editor, told me to focus on the things that motivate and excite me when weighing career options. Political science, my major, is often a first step to becoming a lawyer. However, I love this subject not for the law but because it explains why people act.

Understanding this about myself has allowed me to consider career paths I'd never imagined: marketing, corporate relations, even analyst positions. In fact, from my interviews, I stumbled across the world of business, which I previously had thought of only as a place for stuffed shirts who wear suits and have long commutes.

Trust my hunches. One of the most important outcomes of meeting these interesting people was that I was prompted to take a good look at myself and my interests. This process, plus the advice I received, taught me that following my intuition is the likely solution to my career doubts. If I get a hunch about something I want to do, I'm going to run with it.

Worry less about my early career decisions. I'm young. If I choose to go into a field that isn't right for me, I have plenty of time to explore others. Doug Richardson, a former lawyer who is now a Philadelphia-area career adviser, taught me that my first job isn't my last job. In fact, my first career probably isn't my last. Right now my gut tells me to go into business, and I'm listening. But perhaps I'm destined to do something else, such as work in publishing or become a tour guide in Italy.

Have faith in myself and take risks. Elizabeth Leake loved the Italian language and wanted to be a professor. She also knew that this would be a difficult career path because of the relatively few jobs for Italian professors. But she's now happily employed as a professor of Italian at Rutgers University,

Jennifer, my neighbor, knew that she wrote well and wanted a job as a writer after finishing college. While she lacked medical training, she had faith in herself and sought work in medical editing. She also explores other writing opportunities as a freelancer and just landed her first book deal.

This information has freed me in my job search. While at career fairs and during job interviews (I've had two!), I tell recruiters about my interests and experiences and how both translate into work at their companies. And since I don't know all the jobs and career avenues a particular employer offers, I add that I'm open to other opportunities. When I sell myself this way, I'm convinced I'm going in the right direction because every recruiter has responded positively. More importantly, I believe what I'm saying.

Each person I interviewed last semester told me the same thing: Your first job is never a mistake. I now see that finding a career is a process, and job hunting is a step. If I go in the wrong direction, I can change it, as long as I don't lose my drive. My Uncle Carl pushed himself down career paths he hadn't envisioned until he found the right one. He's now an art-gallery owner, but he started out in interior design. I hope I can push myself the same way. Career exploration doesn't end when I graduate; it's a lifelong process that continues even after retirement.

Setting Goals to Guide Me

The interview that helped me the most was the one with my Dad. As a young man, my father made career decisions based on general goals and objectives. I'm doing the same thing. I set three objectives to accomplish before I'm 30. Now taped to my wall, helping me to focus, they are to:

  • live in a large city (New York, Boston or Chicago),
  • go to graduate school, and
  • work overseas.

These objectives help me to establish parameters, limiting me in some respects. For instance, if I really want to live in one of those cities, I nix job openings in small towns or other cities (unless they're too good to pass up).

By listening, remaining humble, and asking for help, I can learn a lot from others. My fear of taking the wrong turn in my career and failing has changed to excitement and the desire to make the most of my last semester. I plan to keep talking with others, use the school's career center, attend job fairs, review want ads, and post my resume online.

While luck is important to finding a job, so is effort. I also need to remember to have fun. If I've been job hunting all day and my self-esteem is low, I call a friend and go out. After all, it's our senior year of college; we deserve a little fun.

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